As Michigan restores restaurant jobs, industry is back to 84% of pre-pandemic levels

Food and drink jobs are on the upswing again in Michigan, yet 12% of the state’s yet-to-be-regained jobs are from sit-down restaurants.

Michigan had 141,000 sit-down restaurant jobs in January 2020. That number dipped as low as 39,000 in April 2020 as the pandemic and the dine-in ban crushed the industry. Sit-down restaurant employment has rebounded to 105,000 as of March, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While most of Michigan’s hospitality industry has struggled throughout the pandemic, sit-down eateries – also known as full-service restaurants – have seen the biggest swings.

The pandemic and the indoor dining shutdowns changed how people eat – benefiting businesses already specializing in drive-thru and takeout service, said Charles Owens, Michigan director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

“If you go back to when the restaurants were completely shut down, carryout and drive thru was really the only option,” Owens said.

Locally owned restaurants are more likely to be full-service eateries, while national chains make up many of the limited-service restaurants – places where you pay before you eat, like fast food and drive-thru chains.

It’s a similar story for retailers, as people ignored the shop down the street for Amazon and other non-local purchases, Owens said.

The common thread – small businesses shouldered the brunt of the decline.

Here’s a look at how the pandemic and the shutdowns have impacted each restaurant sector, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Click here if you can’t see the graphic.)

Overall, Michigan’s unemployment rate barely budged in March, going from 5.2% to 5.1%. Some of the biggest job swings were in the leisure and hospitality sector.

Michigan full-service restaurants added 37,000 jobs in February as the dine-in ban ended. It added another 6,000 jobs in March.

Dine-in restaurant jobs accounted for 3% of all Michigan jobs in January 2020. Those that were lost and have yet to be restored now make up a share four times that, 12%, of all unrecovered jobs in Michigan.

Meanwhile, limited-service restaurants never really took a hit during this winter’s dine-in ban and are near a full recovery, partially skewing the overall restaurant data.

Restaurant jobs as a whole are back to 84% of pre-pandemic levels, but sit-down restaurant jobs remain at less than 75% of January 2020 levels.

Getting COVID-19 under control would convince people to start going out and spending money again, economists and health experts have said. Indoor dining demand has sunk in recent weeks, said Michigan Licensed Beverage Association Executive Director Scott Ellis, as Michigan’s case numbers and hospitalizations surge.

But there are two other factors limiting job restoration, Owens said. Extra unemployment money until September will make it harder for restaurants to find workers and 50% capacity restrictions limit the amount of revenue and employees businesses can regain, he said.

Summer is the most lucrative season for the Michigan hospitality industry – especially the further north you go, Owens said.

So the clock is ticking. For the sake of small businesses, leaders like Owens are hopeful that “normal” can return sooner rather than later.


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